New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy was five months pregnant when she went to Mongolia on assignment. Her doctor had cleared her for travel, and she was excited to pursue one last adventurous story before settling down with an infant.
But things didn't go as planned: Alone in her hotel room, Levy suffered a placental abruption; her baby boy lived for only 10 minutes. Afterward, Levy was haunted by the notion that she had caused her child's death:
"It's a terrible feeling ... that you made this life and failed to bring it through," she says.
Levy experienced more loss upon her return to the United States. Just weeks after her son's death, her spouse checked into rehab and their marriage dissolved. Suddenly, the life Levy had and the future she'd planned no longer existed.
"That winter — that November when I got back, right after Thanksgiving, from Mongolia — it just felt like a tidal pull was sort of sucking all the most important pieces of my life out to sea," Levy says. "It just kept feeling like, What next? What am I going to lose next? What's left to lose?"
The one aspect of Levy's life that remained unchanged was her identity as a writer — and clinging to that identity is what got her through. Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, describes her experiences with guilt, grief and with moving on.
On initially being ambivalent about becoming a mother
I think that like a lot of young people I know, I was really focused on myself and I wanted to be the protagonist in my own life and I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
There's this great Amelia Earhart quote where she wrote in a letter to her husband: 'I want to do it, because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried.' That's how I felt. I just thought, if you had a child, of course that person would have to come first, and you could no longer be the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses. And your path would calcify in front of you and you'd have to put this other person first.
When I was young, that's not something I could stomach. And then, as I got closer and closer to middle age, I thought, I'd love to put someone else first. I'm sick of putting myself first. I thought it might be a relief to think about someone else's needs, instead of letting my life be governed by my own wishes and wanderlust.
On what it felt like to be pregnant
When you're a pregnant woman, the world smiles on you. I mean, I would tell people, and you could just see them bloom with joy — because it's an amazing thing of course, that you're brewing a human being in your body. I mean, I still can't get over it — that that was something that I was able to do. It's like I knew it was the most obvious thing in the world, and it's how the species keeps going; but it feels pretty miraculous when it's happening to you. And people respond in kind. People who I didn't expect to have a positive reaction did. ... It was amazing to me how many people, how frequently people thought it was, like, the best thing ever.
On what she was thinking when she gave birth in her hotel room in Mongolia
I wasn't in my right mind. I think, at some level, I knew: This isn't possible. This isn't going to work out. He's just too small. There's just absolutely no way. And I think because at some level I knew that, that's why I took a photograph of him. When I picked up the phone eventually to call a doctor, to call for an ambulance, before I put the phone down I took a picture of him. Because at some level I think I knew: This isn't going to work out and I'm going to want to look at this face again.
I think that's something I see my friends do so much with their children — just gaze at them, because it's amazing. I mean, they are these beautiful, fresh humans that got made, and I think we just spend so much time just gazing at them. And I knew this was it for me with this baby, that I knew I was not going to be able to gaze at him again and that the picture would be all that I had. So at some level I knew it. At another level, you know, I had never given birth before and it was all so shocking. It was so incredibly surprising that a person, that a living person had come out of me, that I wasn't really thinking straight. I remember having this thought of like, Is there a way to put him back in? I mean, I wasn't in my right mind.
On if she still looks at the photo she took
I still have it and I don't really look at it anymore. I mean, maybe once a year, on the date that he was born and died, I look at it. I think of the baby then, but I don't look at it anymore. When I first got back from Mongolia I looked at it obsessively, and I tried to get other people to look at it, because I just felt insane. ...
I just felt like a switch had flipped inside of me while I was in that hotel room. I had experienced maternal love, and I couldn't get the switch to un-flip when I got back. ... I just felt like a mother in the most primal part of myself. And also a switch had flipped in my body. I mean, I was lactating. I was making milk for this baby who wasn't there. So I really felt like a mother, but, of course, that was invisible because I had no child. So it was sort of an identity crisis. And one of the ways I tried to resolve that was by showing the picture to anyone I could possibly get to look at it. I kept trying to show them this picture and say, "Look, I made this person. He was alive. I was somebody's mother."
On the guilt that followed
Having now spoken with lots of women who have had miscarriages or still births or other tragedies, I want to say — because that's what it feels like when it's you, tragedies around losing their babies – "I think it's pretty common to feel really guilty." ... And if you've done something that sounds bad, like flown to Mongolia, it's even easier to think, I did this. I got what I deserved.
But it's just not rational. That's not what happened. I had a placental abruption. And if you have that — which means your placenta is coming off from the uterine wall — it's not going to work out. It doesn't matter if you're in Mongolia or Massachusetts. It's just not going to work out. Eventually I just had to accept that I was sort of liberated from my illusion of control by this experience, and then by not being able to ever get pregnant again. I mean, I just sort of had to surrender to the idea that it's not up to me, it's not something I get to decide.
On coming to terms with mortality and not having everything
I just think that mortality is a rule that always applies, obviously. And I think infertility is sort of a preview of mortality. It's just, OK, you can make all sorts of decisions and open your mind and change the rules, but you're going to die, and as a woman there will come a day when you're no longer able to make children. And that was just a reality I had to learn.
It probably sounds extraordinarily obvious, and how could I have ever thought otherwise? But I don't know, I just didn't really understand all that. I was a late bloomer in terms of understanding the limitations of life. ... People have asked me a lot, "So are you saying that feminism has done some sort of disservice to women by telling them that they could have everything?" I don't think feminism said that. I don't think feminism ever told us, "You can have everything." I think feminism said, "You are fully human. You're a full human being as a woman." But the human condition, of course, is that everybody doesn't get everything. And I think imagining you can have whatever you want, it's not the thinking of a feminist — it's the thinking of a toddler.
On falling in love with, and getting engaged to, the doctor who treated her in Mongolia, but not including that in the book
It's all so ridiculous that I didn't put it [in the book] because I think that if you put at the end of a book, "and then we fell in love," it's unreasonable to ask the reader not to think what you're saying is, "And then Prince Charming came and saved me and we lived happily ever after, and that saved me from my grief." So I didn't put it in because that's not accurate.
Falling in love with him didn't save me from the grief of losing my son. It didn't end the grief of my last marriage ending. It didn't do anything except begin a new chapter. And I just didn't think it was appropriate to put it in this book; that's not what this book was about. So it's not there.
Sam Briger and Therese Madden produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.